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The skills women need to find jobs in the technological revolution

Amber Nasrulla
The skills women need to find jobs in the technological revolution.

In the next 10 years a significant percentage of Canada’s labour force – up to 42 per cent – is at risk of being bumped off the job by automation, according to a new report this month by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E). Although the male-dominated transportation sector is expected to take a big hit, the rise of the machines adversely impacts women more than men, as female workers will lose their jobs in customer service, office support, sales and administration.

According to another recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) women could also miss out on tomorrow’s new jobs in computer, technology and engineering-related fields because the new and emerging roles are outpacing the rate at which women currently enter those fields.

Opportunity amidst the rise of the machines

And yet, experts say there’s opportunity amidst the technological tumult.

“Canadians shouldn’t regard technological advances as the enemy,” said Armine Yalnizyan a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), explaining that socio-economic, technological and demographic developments will create new categories of work.

“On the other side of this we will have jobs that we didn’t even know existed years before. There will always be plenty of work to be done and more creative work.”

With the market continuously changing there’s no path to future-proofing existing jobs and sectors where women are overrepresented. Instead, in order to master the jobs of tomorrow, she emphasized the importance of businesses to invest in training and for workers across all industries to upgrade their skills and commit to lifelong learning.

Where the jobs are

The WEF report highlights growth in new STEM job areas (science, technology, engineering, and math) including data analysts, which companies expect will help them gain insights from the flood of data generated by the technological disruptions.

It also discusses other new specialties such as new types of human resources and organizational development specialists, engineering specialties such as materials, bio-chemicals, nanotech and robotics, regulatory and government-relations specialists, geospatial information systems experts and commercial and industrial designers.

The WEF highlighted that social skills like persuasiveness, emotional intelligence and the ability to teach others will be in higher demand across industries compared to narrow technical skills, such as programming or equipment operation and control. And cognitive abilities such as creativity and mathematical reasoning and process skills (active listening and critical thinking) will be a growing part of core skills requirements for many industries.

Yalnizyan noted that, for hundreds of years, people feared that machines would replace them.

“We were worried about it when we mechanized agriculture; we worried when we mechanized the weaving of cloth; when cars replaced horses and when the first wave of robots came in the 1960s,” she said, explaining that society finds a way to use technology to its advantage in order to make money and to create more jobs.

“The conversation comes up with every wave of innovation,” she said adding, “Resistance is futile.”  

Female workforce pipeline

In her 32 years championing gender-parity in the workplace Jane Wilson, director of women’s and newcomer services at Community MicroSkills Development Centre, has seen dozens of programs successfully help women upgrade their skills. MicroSkills supports women’s training for employment in non-traditional jobs in areas such as IT and operates trade apprenticeship programs assisting women.

Wilson has observed that while some programs have made great inroads for small numbers of women in several sectors, they haven’t made a very significant impact overall when considering the large percentage of the workforce comprised of women.

“We have heard a symphony of voices in the discussion over the years, resulting in some really great, but disconnected and underfunded initiatives that help relatively few women,” she said.

As a result, the labour force remains deeply “sex-segregated” and that threatens women’s livelihoods into the future, especially those of Indigenous women, racial minorities and immigrant women, Wilson said.

To take advantage of the changes in technology and advancements in computerization, Wilson advocates for “a national conversation that involves all of the domains responsible for the pipeline of the female workforce.” This will ensure that a critical mass of young girls and women are heading to STEM occupations to fulfill demand and to equip themselves with liveable occupations, she said.

Specifically, government, primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, community groups, career educators, employment counselors need to develop a strategy with targets and timelines, she explained, along with a discussion on training and transitions, for those in the workforce.  

Gender equality

Yalnizyan agrees that gender equity and gender employment is “unfinished business from 30 years ago,” and said both business and government can take advantage of future jobs by making a commitment to gender equality in the boardroom, C-suite, and at every rung of the ladder.

“We need to make sure that we insert this conversation about equity; namely, that a woman can do anything a man can do. And should be paid at the same rate as a man when she does it,” Yalnizyan said.

It’s time for all citizens to expect that people are treated equally, and equally well, in the workplace regardless of skin colour or gender or sexual orientation, she added.